Researchers at the University of Strathclyde have received £377,000 from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to develop a bio-artificial artery to treat cardiovascular diseases.

The MRC New Investigator Award won by Dr Junxi Wu, Chancellor’s Fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, will enable him to lead a multi-disciplinary team with expertise in vascular biology and bioengineering to develop a bio-artificial artery that mimics the natural artery.

If successful, the bio-artificial artery, created using only human cells and vascular matrix proteins and no synthetic materials, could be used in patients  with cardiovascular disease to bypass blocked arteries.

Cardiovascular diseases occur when arteries become blocked due to factors such as smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes or a sedentary lifestyle, and can lead to life-threatening events, such as heart attacks and amputations.

The best treatment is to replace a diseased artery with a healthy blood vessel taken from another part of the patient’s body. However, many patients do not have suitable blood vessels to transplant.

New treatment

Synthetic prosthetic vascular grafts – essentially plastic tubes – can be used to replace big arteries, such as the aorta, but have not proven very successful as a substitute for smaller arteries, such as those in the heart and legs, and have a high incidence of re-blockage and infection.

An alternative is to use cells of human origin to build a bio-artificial artery that behaves as a natural artery would. However, none of the currently available bio-artificial arteries are as durable as natural arteries and none have outperformed the synthetic prosthetic vascular grafts.

Dr Junxi has adopted a cross-disciplinary approach integrating 3D cells moulding and 3D bioprinting to develop bio-artificial arteries that mimic both morphology and function of the natural artery structure.

The function and durability of this innovative bio-artificial artery will be studied in an advanced bio-mimetic perfusion culture system and in a mouse model. This will form the foundation for the next-stage large animal trial and clinical translation.

Dr Wu, a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, said: “Successful development of a bio-artificial artery promises a potential new treatment for life-threating vascular diseases.”

“By the end of the project we want to be confident that the artificial artery functions like a natural artery so that we could move to the next stage clinical development. The method should be quite scaleable – meaning we can create these on a human-scale, which is the focus of another MRC grant we have.”

“If successful, this approach could also have significant benefits for the reduction of animal testing. The proposed artery would particularly benefit elder patients with poor healing capability and young children who require vascular implants to growth with the body.”

The technologies developed in this project will also provide strong support to realise Dr Wu’s research vision in development of a hierarchical vascular network and vascularised organs.

Professor Stuart Reid, Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, said: “Dr Wu’s pioneering work in vascular biology and bioengineering are helping to address some of the most important challenges faced in the surgical environment and in the future exploitation of tissue and organ engineering. 

“This research will be further supported through the £15.5m investment in the refurbished Wolfson Building, providing state of the art research facilities in cell and tissue engineering, medical devices, and rehabilitation.”